A world of three cultures: honor, achievement, and joy

I attended a TED talk a couple of weeks ago, and the thesis of one of the speakers really stuck with me (video unavailable as of yet). Professor Miguel Basáñez, of Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, spoke about his theory that while there are around 200 countries in the world, there are three primary cultures.

Cultures of Achievement, "with an economic emphasis on success, performance, productivity, and punctuality." In his talk, Basáñez used the example of the U.K.

Cultures of Honor, "with a political emphasis on leadership, loyalty, hierarchy, and obedience." Basáñez cites Japan as an example.

And Cultures of Joy, "with a social emphasis on friends, family, having fun, and outdoor life." Basáñez described his own upbringing in Mexico, and the culture shock he experience when he moved to other countries.

Of course, there are countries that combine various elements of each, just as the three primary colors can be combined to create many more. And there are subcultures that may have different cultural shades than the larger culture in which they reside. But it is helpful to think of these three cultures, with their differing priorities and values, as primary.

Basáñez came upon this theory in 1993, when he analyzed the data from a massive worldwide survey of people of different religion's values, and created this cultural map.

Posted with the permission of Miguel Basáñez.

When he eventually honed this analysis into the Three Cultures, he discovered that he was far from the first academic to find these three rather distinct categories. Others had made the same divisions, although with different names.

Posted with the permission of Miguel Basáñez.

It may seem simplistic, or even obvious, to break all of the world's cultures into three prototypes. But I found that explicitly doing so was kind of a revelation, clarifying impressions, and providing a useful framework for thinking about the world.

For example, before the talk, I had just read this essay by a woman in the U.S. who was fed up with our striving, anti-social lifestyle in the U.S., and planned a move to Italy, where people hang out after work, and visit each other spontaneously. This is clearly someone who wants to trade an Culture of Achievement for a Culture of Joy.

I just started watching the Hulu TV show Shōgun, and there couldn't be a more stark (fictional) account of a clash between a Culture of Achievement and a Culture of Honor.

I was very intrigued by Basáñez's suggestion during his talk that work was being done that suggests that our brains may be wired in a way that's consistent with this three-culture paradigm. I spoke to him afterwards, and he pointed me to this video about advances in cultural neuroscience.

Miguel Basáñez's book on his theory, A World of Three Cultures: Honor, Achievement and Joy, was published in 2015 (Oxford University Press).